The Letter to the Hebrews: a commentary & meditation

Christ the Eternal High Priest seated in Heaven 
(mosaic San Giovani baptistry, Florence)

"Christ entered once for all into the Holy Place" - Hebrews 9:12

Scripture: Hebrews 9:1-28
1 Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary. 2 For a tent was prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence; it is called the Holy Place. 3 Behind the second curtain stood a tent called the Holy of Holies, 4 having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, which contained a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron's rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; 5 above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.

6 These preparations having thus been made, the priests go continually into the outer tent, performing their ritual duties; 7 but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood which he offers for himself and for the errors of the people. 8 By this the Holy Spirit indicates that the way into the sanctuary is not yet opened as long as the outer tent is still standing 9 (which is symbolic for the present age). According to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, 10 but deal only with food and drink and various ablutions, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.

11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant. 16 For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. 17 For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. 18 Hence even the first covenant was not ratified without blood. 19 For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20 saying, "This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you."21 And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. 22 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

23 Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. 25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Meditation: Jesus Christ's death on the cross replaced the sacrifices of the old covenant. It did not cancel them or destroy their significance, but it replaced them by fulfilling them. What the ceremonies of the old covenant sought the forgiveness of sins and restoration of relationship with God was achieved by Christ's death and resurrection. Since the once sacrifice of Jesus Christ truly accomplished all that the many sacrifices of the old covenant sought and only partially reached, his sacrifice "fulfilled" those old covenant sacrifices.

The death of Jesus Christ is spoken about as a sacrifice in the New Testament more often than as a payment or a punishment. In First Corinthians 5:7 we read, "...Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed." In Ephesians 5:2 we read, "Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God." Hebrews 9:26 states that Christ "appeared at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself."

The death of Jesus Christ was directed to God and intended to affect God in some way. As Ephesians 5:2 states, "He gave himself as a sacrifice to God." God was the object of the sacrificial death of Christ. What happened in his redemptive work was directed to God in worship and homage and was intended to affect him. To see Christ's death as an expression of God's love for us or as a good example for us to imitate misses the central aspect if his death if it was a sacrifice. A sacrifice is directed to God, not to us.

This understanding of sacrifice also tells us something about why death was necessary for Christ. A death, after all, is not a very good gift especially not the bloody death of a beloved Son. But the death of Christ on the cross was not an offering of death to God. It was the way Christ gave his life in sacrifice to God.

Christ "offered himself without blemish to God" (Hebrews 9:14). He "put away sin by the sacrifice of himself" (Hebrews 9:26). He "gave himself as a sacrifice to God" (Ephesians 5:2). Christ made himself an offering, a sacrifice to God, a gift that was truly pleasing to his Father. We were saved by Christ's blood because we were saved by his life made over to God through a killing which made it a true sacrificial offering.

Christ's death on the cross fulfilled the sacrificial offering on the Day of Atonement. On this day atonement was made for all the sins and uncleanness of the people of Israel that had not been previously atoned for by specific sacrifices. As the same time the temple with the altar the place of God's presence was purified from the defilement due to its contact with unclean people. In fulfilling the offerings on the Day of Atonement, Christ's sacrifice on the cross purified God's people from all of their sin and uncleanness so they could be the place of the presence of the holy God. Moreover, as Isaiah 53 indicates, Christ atoned not simply for Israelites but also for Gentiles, so that their hearts might be cleansed through faith in him and in what he did (see Acts 15:9).

The New Testament also describes Christ's sacrifice as a sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 9:12). Atonement for sin was an integral part of the great ceremonies of old covenant. It made possible the establishment, restoration, and strengthening of relationship with God. Christ himself understood his death to be a sacrifice for sin. When at the last Supper he described his blood as "poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:28), he was explaining his coming crucifixion as a sacrifice for sins. In alluding to Isaiah 53:10-12, Christ also seemed to be asserting he would offer a sacrifice that was not just for a specific sinful action or offense of some individual. It was a corporate sacrifice for sin, a sacrifice for a body of people (see Leviticus 4:13-21). It was, moreover, not just a sin offering for the people of Israel but for the whole human race.

"Lord Jesus Christ, by your death on a cross you have won pardon for our sins and you have opened the way for direct access to the throne of God. Help me to draw near with boldness and confidence that I may give you thanks and praise for your work of redemption."

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